D is for Diet!
For comprehensive advice on specific elimination diets you are going to have to look elsewhere.
This is just an overview of how the food issue comes up in the wonderful world of Autistic Spectrum Disorders and the word that I would apply to diet is LIMITED.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, autism can mean you are subjected to a range of sensory overloads and therefore seeking a consistency in your environment.
By being selective about eating a child can exercise a measure of control over the sensory bombardment that they are experiencing.
And just as important as taste and smell, is the feel and look of a food.
Many children decide they do not like foods of a certain colour with a determination which you can identify with; if you try to imagine eating blue soup. It’s just wrong!
Don’t expect them to find white or yellow or brown food any less wrong.
People with Autism often have an incredible palate as evidenced by the number of Auties I used to meet in the wine industry. (The wine industry offers limitless opportunities to learn and relate facts, another bonus for the average Autie!)
They can identify and distinguish the most minor differences between foods from one source and another. It is a refinement that makes home cooking difficult, unless you follow a recipe with scientific precision.
Unfortunately, packaged foods do offer a level of consistency; especially with the unhelpful additional flavour enhancers that make all their products taste the same. So our kids will naturally gravitate towards branded packaged foods.
The only mistake the snack foods manufacturers make is when they mess around with the packaging in order to justify their over paid marketing directors (I’m not bitter!)
Then you will find yourself driving miles to buy up all the old stock of a particular product rather than face the tantrums at home.
I am as much a victim of this as any of you and the following advice comes from things we have tried. However we still need a lot more help in this area, and I urge you to comment or email me your experiences with food and ASD.
I have always tried to watch calories first to be sure they getting enough. My kids are capable of starving themselves when unwell and quickly lose a lot of weight.
However, it is easy to fill them up with the aforementioned flavour enhanced junk and leave no room for "good" food, so the trick is to find a balance.
Branded breakfast cereals might have truckloads of sugar, but they are fortified with vitamins and if they are eaten with milk, the child is also getting some calcium. Breakfast cereals can be eaten at all times of the day and encourage fine motor spoon control as they do not taste as good when eaten with fingers, another bonus. Just read the box to try and get the maximum amount of fibre and the minimum of E numbers and sugar.
Spreads such as marmite or vegemite contain a lot of vitamin B and if your child can acquire a taste, the flavour is very consistent! Use real butter (if not on a lactose free diet) and a little bit of spread on hot toast.
If they eat pasta with sauce, then try mushing a bit of V8 tomato juice into the sauce. They may still request ketchup but those little vitamins will be hiding underneath. I always add garlic paste and Parmesan cheese to my son’s pasta. No reason to dumb down their food for them and it is actually better to get them used to food that smells and tastes like yours from the start. The tactile nature of spaghetti or noodles can be irresistible and they may want to use fingers so serve it with a thick sauce and a wet wipe! At least they are eating it.
They may also find the texture of fresh fruit revolting, so try tinned fruits (in their own juice not syrup) or dried fruits. Pineapple is delicious on a pizza and tastes less fruity, and my Boo loves to pick the raisins out of a bun, but he cannot bring himself to bite an apple. Just be sure to brush teeth afterwards as dried and tinned fruits have more concentrated natural sugars.
Oh, and if your kid is hooked on sugar then make sure you get them hooked on toothpaste aswell, or wrap them up in a towel and kneel on their chest while you brush their teeth every night before they go to sleep. It may seem harsh but the nature of autism means that any dental work must be undertaken under general anaesthetic in a big scary hospital.
Ban caramel and honeycomb and those evil soft chew fruity things. And tell your relatives to eliminate them from their homes or stop visiting.
Seriously, if your child eats a piece of chocolate it will eventually dissolve. If they get hooked on caramels or fruit pastilles the bits get stuck in their teeth and start working on digging cavities.
Please remember that baby teeth do count! As well as needing them to eat and look good, the baby teeth provide little spacers for the second teeth to line up nicely behind and then come through straight.
So go to your child right now and put a toothbrush in their mouth before they end up with big cavernous holes and a crooked smile for life.
With regard to food additives, it is a good idea to start a food diary, particularly if you are noticing some inappropriate behaviours or sleep difficulties. (well, more than usual)
It took me ages to work it out but it seems that the foods my son craves the most, contain natural red coloring. Tomato Ketchup, Strawberry Jam, and any crisp or snack that has tomato extract in its ingredients.
Mad crisps and snacks such as "prawn cocktail" or "buffalo wings" flavoured always have tomato extract to make them that distinctive brown or pinkish hue. I also think this applies to t hoops, waffles or anything that has been mushed up and then deep fried into a new shape.
The trick is to stay as close to an actual food as you can. In other words, never eat or serve anything that your great grandmother would not recognise as food.
Thinly sliced potatoes seasoned with salt and vinegar would count, mushed up cornflower made into hoop shapes with added tartrazine and then deepfried would not.
Keeping a food diary where you write down "ate this" and "then he did this!!" will quickly help you sort out what foods make your child wacky.
Highly processed foods are being held responsible for causing unprecedented levels of child constipation. White sliced bread for instance; a staple of my Boo's diet; is made with yeast and dough which has been fermented for 1 hour at the most. Which means that processed sliced bread has to finish its fermenting in your gut. Ughh! and this causes big problems. My Boo gets a bit of a panic on when he needs a number two, because I think it hurts him a bit. I am now trying to source artisan breads that have been left to rise overnight before baking. They are a little more coarse, and go stale more quickly (a good sign I think) so I find I have to toast it the next day.
It is hard when our kids crave consistency and blandness of texture, You just have to keep trying.
The other thing to keep in mind is that since Autism is genetic, you may be passing on your own food phobias and limitations to your children.
My own husband was 22 before he chewed and swallowed a tomato. He told me when he was a teenager he lived on mashed potatoes and gravy for a time; and coke. He also told me he had scurvy as a child. In the 70's.
Now you know why I got my kids drinking apple juice from an early age.
Try and fight your own phobias and as one Mum has suggested; try a new food every week together.
You may be surprised to find your 6 year old likes Chicken Jalfrezi, or sushi or as my Bratty did at age 2; pan seared scallops. (those were the days!).
Eating at the table together can help, as you are all there to try the new foods together.
Or it can be stressful as you never get to enjoy your food while you are tortured trying to get your kids to stay still and eat.
It took me 3 years and several different expensive high chairs before I gave in and realised my kids like to graze.
I can get them to sit in their trip trap chairs when they request food and eat at the table. But I cannot get them to observe traditional mealtimes. I guess you choose your battles after a while.
I will look forward to recieving your suggestions for ways to tackle this ongoing issue for us, and I think many families with autism.